From the common cold to muscle aches, we all have days when we feel like we are falling apart. Vitamins can play an important role in building your defenses and addressing those aches and pains.
When it comes to vitamins for immune health, we tend to reach for vitamin C. Its exact role in immunity has been long debated, but vitamin C’s antioxidant properties may indeed help fight disease as well as heal wounds and even skin and bones. Research suggests that vitamin C does help shorten the duration of colds, while some studies say it can help prevent them, especially among those who are in cold environments or who exercise strenuously. We believe it is reasonable to supplement with a daily dose of approximately 250 mg and perhaps step it up to 500 mg daily with the onset of respiratory or other infectious symptoms.
One of our favorite vitamins, vitamin D3, has been shown to play a role in disease prevention. Unfortunately, most of us are deficient in this vitamin. Sunlight is the best source of vitamin D, yet the majority of us live in climates that do not provide adequate year-round sun exposure and/ or we wisely use sun protection to avoid other damaging effects, such as skin cancer and wrinkles. A few foods naturally contain vitamin D, but they do not tend to be staples in our diets. Exact amounts to take can depend on where you live, what diet you eat and any health issues you may have, such as celiac disease, which impairs absorption.
Vitamin D deficiency is notorious for causing both muscle aches and weakness, in addition to generalized fatigue and low bone density. In our practices, we have seen patients misdiagnosed with severe neuromuscular conditions when they simply turned out to have low levels of vitamin D. Treating their deficiency with a vitamin D supplement reversed their symptoms. Correcting severe vitamin D deficiency requires time and patience, since it takes several months to build up your body stores. Follow-up is especially vital, because you don’t want to overdo it. Taking too much vitamin D when your body doesn't need it can have negative effects, such as kidney stones and constipation.
Zinc’s role in decreasing the duration of the common cold has been explored and validated. It is an elemental metal that appears to have some effect on reducing the rhinovirus (a common virus that causes colds). We know it can also be helpful in wound-healing, so there may be a role for zinc in helping tissues to return to normal. We do not advocate for daily zinc for cold prevention since over-supplementation with heavy metals may be toxic. Rather, we believe it is most useful as an occasional, as-needed supplement when we are most at risk for an illness. For example, taking zinc may be helpful for several days after being exposed to an illness or at the onset of an infection.
Another cause of muscle aches or leg cramps can be a magnesium deficiency. This essential electrolyte helps regulate channels that cause your muscle cells to contract and relax. Magnesium also is the gatekeeper for several other electrolytes, such as calcium and potassium. Without sufficient magnesium, your body cannot properly absorb and retain the other two electrolytes.
Aloe Vera, Echinacea and ginseng are credited with playing a role in immunity. However, the data is not compelling enough for us to recommend their routine use for this purpose. They are likely not harmful if you find a pure source from a reputable manufacturer, but we do not believe they are worth the effort or expense.
Probiotics can certainly be helpful for recovering from gastrointestinal illnesses and prevention of certain bacterial infections of the gut.
It is important to consider that there are times when our muscles are more fatigued than others. Just as every person is not the same, each day is not the same. A strenuous workout or stressful day can tax our muscles more than usual. During those times, drinking lots of water and obtaining essential electrolytes and vitamins are key to preparing your muscles to work hard. Replenishing potassium, glucose, sodium chloride and vitamin B12, which is essential to energy and nerve function, is critical.
Arielle Miller Levitan, MD, is a board-certified internal medicine physician and the cofounder of Vous Vitamin, LLC. She is the author of The Vitamin Solution: Two Doctors Clear Confusion About Vitamins and Your Health. She attended Stanford University and Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, and has served as chief medical resident for the Northwestern University McGraw Medical Center’s Evanston Hospital Program and as a clinical instructor for its medical school. She has a special interest in women’s health and preventive medicine and currently practices general internal medicine on the North Shore of Chicago, where she teaches medical students on-site. She enjoys cooking, cardio tennis, running, being a soccer mom (sometimes) and spending time with her three kids and husband (also a doctor of internal medicine).
Romy Block, MD, is a board-certified specialist in endocrine and metabolism medicine, member of American Thyroid Association, and the cofounder of Vous Vitamin, LLC. She is the author of The Vitamin Solution: Two Doctors Clear Confusion About Vitamins and Your Health. She attended Tufts University and Tel Aviv University’s Sackler School of Medicine. She completed residency training in internal medicine at North Shore University Hospital—North Shore-LIJ and did a fellowship at New York University. She practices on the North Shore of Chicago, where she specializes in thyroid disorders and pituitary diseases. She enjoys travel, food and wine, working out with her personal trainer and spending time with her husband (a pulmonary and sleep specialist) and their three boys.